The Wolverine’s Will Yun Lee on Harada’s honour and sacrifice

Harada actor Will Yun Lee on dining with Hugh Jackman, epic fight scenes, and the Samurai code

Will Yun Lee as Harada in The Wolverine
Will Yun Lee as Harada in The Wolverine

With his blend of Ninja reflexes, bad-ass bow-skills and a murky agenda that could threaten Logan as much as aid him in The Wolverine, Will Yun Lee’s Kenuichio Harada is a fan-favourite antihero in the making. Lee spoke exclusively to SciFiNow about Harada’s Samurai arc, James Mangold’s meticulous direction, and Hugh Jackman’s fistful of lottery tickets…

What can you tell us about your character?

I play Kenuichio Harada, I guess without giving too much away he’s kind of this mysterious character who’s tied in with many other characters in the movie. The way James Mangold structured the movie, he makes all of the relationships work, and you never know which side of field that Harada’s playing on ’til the end of the movie, so you just have to watch and see where he ends up.

Is it fair to say his relationship with Shingen and Mariko, and then Logan, is pretty complex and intense?

[long pause] Yes. You’re dead on about that.

Had you read the comic?

I had not. As a kid growing up I was a huge fan of Wolverine and the X-Men series. When I went in for the role, it was so top secret, I read the script the day before and they gave me sides – sides for an actor are basically the lines that you’re gonna memorise to audition in front of the director, and I think the character’s name was Marzio:“This just doesn’t sound right, how am I playing a character named Marzio in a Japanese Wolverine movie?” So I didn’t know too much about the character, and more was revealed to me when I actually made the trip to Australia and sat with James.

The comic was very much a product of the Eighties, were you worried it would by unrepresentative of modern Asia?

I think the moment when I thought, like, “Wow, this is something special” was in my first week working with James, and when you go from page to screen and you actually see what’s happening and the elements, and how much character’s in the nuances of the Japanese culture, I think that was special to me. And knowing that he directed Walk The Line and 3:10 To Yuma, I knew he was very meticulous in the way that characters were developed.

So it was a combination of knowing that and watching him direct the first week that I had with him, it was so epic and so beautiful and everything was so tied in with the Japanese culture in the way they bowed, the way they moved, the way they would actually say things. After that first week, if I had any fear it was aleviated.

What sort of role does Hugh have on set, as both the star and the driving force?

Obviously someone of Hugh Jackman’s stature, you know it’s Hugh Jackman’s movie. But what’s special about Hugh is that he never makes you feel that. In the way felt I walked away from this movie was Hugh Jackman, James Mangold and Hiroyuki Sanada were like three men who embodied what I thought the Japanese culture is in terms of the passion, and the way they treated people, and the respect they had.

I always think about Hugh in two stories. About 95 per cent of the time I was there, he ate with the crew and I can never remember a time when I worked with an A-list actor who literally at lunch time walked in line with the crew and sat with them and ate with them. That to me it just says a lot about his character, and two, every Friday he would give out lottery tickets, and he’d pry off about a thousand of them in his hand and he would hand them to every single crew, cast member, it didn’t matter. If you were involved in the set in some form, you were getting a lottery ticket. And that happened in Japan and Sydney, without fail.

He’s a really special person in knowing the stature he is in Hollywood, he never makes anyone feel like that. He truly makes you he’s your colleague, and that’s such a rare gift.

Does it help to work with someone who’s embodied that role for so long?

I think back to a scene I shot with Hugh, and I remember, you kind of go back to the the giddiness or the nervousness you get from working with someone of Hugh Jackman’s calibre begins when you get on the the plane and you’re thinking, “Wow, I got this job, and I get to go work with Hugh Jackman.”

When I got on that set for a specific scene I had with him, he literally makes you feel like the minute you need him, you’re back in acting class and you’re two actors working on a scene – he never gave off the aura that you weren’t allowed to approach him as an actor and ask for help doing lines, or thinking of the way things block. He was so giving in that way, and I think that will translate into the film because it takes away the mysticism of working on a big, giant tentpole movie.

There were quite a lot of heavyweight martial artists involved, was it cool watching everyone come together?

Yeah, the team that put it together was 87 Eleven and I got a chance to work with them on a couple of movies, and they really are the best in the business, because they’re so meticulous – they would make sure that from the way you grabbed a sword, to the way you stood, it was all aligned with the Japanese style of fighting.

The way they talk about the action in a film is “choreography, choreography, choreography,” but the way James and 87 Eleven gave it reach, structure and training was he wanted everyone to just… you know, we spent 95 per cent of our time on technique and just being able to move, because you never know when the environment changes or you can’t shoot a certain scene in a certain location that you thought you were going to shoot in.

They gave the film that structure where all the people who were training to fight could adapt, and a perfect example was Hugh was involved in this ginormous fight, and we’re about to shoot when I guess they realised they couldn’t use that exact choreography they had been working on and changed it 10 minutes before the scene started, and literally every frame is Hugh Jackman. He picked up that choreography in under 10 minutes and shot every frame, even the stunt guys were like “There’s no other actor that could have done this and picked it up that fast.”

It was such a huge piece of timing and where he was standing was so dangerous. Literally if he’d missed his mark at a certain point, he’d have been crushed. It’s really impressive to watch.

Do you think there’s a commonality there in coming from a martial arts background and coming from a musical theatre background?

Absolutely. He has his claws and he’s fighting all different adversaries who have weapons – I think what people don’t realise, is when we’re on set and you hear the word action, the adrenalin goes to 10 – if someone misses their beat, you lose an eye. It’s really dangerous. The thing about Hugh is if you fight Hugh, you know you will be safe, because his timing is impeccable and it had to come from I’m sure that background, and to sell the amount of power he has as the Wolverine and be able to control and feel like you’re safe is definitely rare.

Harada takes aim.
Harada takes aim.

You’ve done a couple of comic-book related projects in the past with Witchblade and Elektra, is it funny you keep coming back to them?

No, you kinda just treat it as another project, another chance to learn something. The only funny thing was I did Red Dawn, I was fighting the Wolverines, now the next movie comes up and it’s The Wolverine [laughs].

After Elektra, you didn’t go ‘Ah Frank Miller comic, Hand Ninja clan, yep, I’ve been here before’?

No, I didn’t go into it with that mindset. It was a different world and I wanted to be respectful of treating everything like brand new experience. My first week with James was truly an eye-opener, in terms of what’s so great about him is he calls you on your BS and he’s not afraid to do it, and you make sure that you know what you’re doing and you know what you’re saying, and I think for me the most important part of working with Jim was just had to be open because he comes up with 30 or 40 different ideas, choices that I’d never thought of, and that worked better and made the relationships more complicated and more beautiful and moments more intense. I definitely walked away learning a lot from him.

It definitely sounds like the set had a unique atmosphere…

I think it’s twofold, number one and number two: Hugh Jackman, James Mangold. They set the tone of the film. The respect that they paid to the Japanese culture in terms of the nuances of the way we spoke, the way we walked, they were so meticulous about that. I think just who they were on set embodied what I thought of as a Japanese warrior – passionate, they were respectful, but they knew what they wanted. You always felt safe walking on set: as long as I know my lines, and if I stay open I know that James is not gonna let a shot go unless he feels that this scene is right.

James Mangold’s been very open about taking influence from Samurai films, did you see Harada’s arc in those terms?

What I can say is he surprised me, and what I read as an actor on the page and what we shoot on screen and how he interacts with… I remember shooting a scene with Tao [Okamoto, who plays his half-sister Mariko] and he literally… and I knew he had been planning this moment in his head throughout the entire movie, it wasn’t until I got to a certain scene I was like “Wow, every choice that I made has come to this point of what a Japanese warrior is” in terms honour, in terms of respect, in terms of sacrifice. That was a cool thing I learnt as far as an actor goes, he really thought about the arc and tied it with the spirit of what we thought of as the Japanese warrior.

The Wolverine is released in UK cinemas on 25 July 2013. You can buy X-Men: The Ultimate Collection on Blu-ray for £32.68 at Amazon.co.uk.